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Stories from Jewish History | An Early Modern Tale of Two Biblical Scholars

Dr. Tamar Marvin
Dr. Tamar Marvin
Hello and welcome to the weekly newsletter Stories from Jewish History, which you can read more about here. In honor of the annual cycle of Torah reading we started last week, this week’s focus is on (a small part of) the story of the Masoretic text of Tanakhwith its accurate spelling, vowelization, grammatical marks, and punctuation.

One of two silver scrolls discovered in 1979 in Jerusalem bearing the text in paleo-Hebrew of birkat kohanim  | Image by Tamar Hayardeni, Attribution,
One of two silver scrolls discovered in 1979 in Jerusalem bearing the text in paleo-Hebrew of birkat kohanim | Image by Tamar Hayardeni, Attribution,
The words of birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing as recorded in the Torah (Bemidbar 6:26-24), leap out at us from the painstakingly unfurled silver scrolls dated c. 600 BCE, above. Well, not exactly leap, unless you read paleo-Hebrew, or what the rabbis of the Talmud call כתב ליבונאה, “Libon'ah script” (in contrast to what they term כתב אשורי, “Assyrian script,” which is what we now call the script we think of as square Hebrew). But once the paleo-Hebrew is transcribed into standard Hebrew, you can recognize the ancient words that have made their way down to us.
The story of the exactitude with which that happened is astounding and epic. Today, I’m going to tell just a tiny, though significant and fascinating, part of that story. It’s the story of two men who lived in Italy around the turn of the 16th century, right about 2000 years after the silver scrolls were incised. These two men were on a mission: to trace the exacting tradition of recording the text and reading tradition of Tanakh, complete with orthography, vowelization, and cantillation marks.
The lives of these two men intersect, and in that intersection is a message: through the love and labor of individual human beings, tradition lives to be handed down. Their method of working tells us the secret of how they did it, even if they didn’t always acknowledge the interconnectedness of their knowledge.
The colorful life of Menachem de Lonzano
British Library Ms. Or. 9167, a work called Imrei Emet featuring Lonzano's critical notes on the Ari
British Library Ms. Or. 9167, a work called Imrei Emet featuring Lonzano's critical notes on the Ari
Menachem ben Yehudah de Lonzano managed to involve himself in several of the key, swirling intellectual currents of his day. At age 25, he made his way to Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem, probably from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. From then he went to Tzfat (Safed), where the great confraternity of Kabbalists held sway (Arizal, R. Chaim Vital, R. Moshe Cordovero, R. Yosef Karo, to name a few), eventually returning to Jerusalem. Lonzano got to work on various commentaries on the Zohar, including ones harshly critical of the Ari, which did not exactly win him popularity. He also clashed with Yisrael Najara, whom Lonzano accused of using excessively erotic language in his poetry.
Lonzano conceived of his life’s work as one giant, encyclopedic compendium which he called Shtei Yadot, “The Two Hands.” Fittingly, each “hand” was comprised of five etzba'ot, “fingers,” that formed an omnibus of this eclectic thinker’s scholarship. The first part, Yad Ani, includes two sections of moralistic poetry, a section of prayers about the seder avodah (worship service) of the Beit ha-Mikdash, and a sizeable addendum to the important medieval Aramaic dictionary, the Arukh, written by Nathan b. Yechiel of Rome. Lonzano’s additions to the dictionary display his knowledge of Greek, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. The first section of Yad Ani would prove to be Lonzano’s major contribution, which we’ll get to shortly. It was called Or Torah and included extensive notes on the masorah (textual tradition) of the Torah in light of Lonzano’s wide-ranging research of various print and manuscript editions. The second “hand,” Yad ha-Melekh, was never fully realized; only its first “finger” was published, about the midrashim on Sefer Bereshit. (In writing this last section, Lonzano was taking up another fascination of his day, the renewed interest in midrash. He apparently sought out manuscripts of different midrash collections, noting his discovery of previously lost material.)
The charmed life of Yedidyah Norzi
"Mantua (Italia) Vistas de ciudades 1575" by Biblioteca Nacional de España is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
"Mantua (Italia) Vistas de ciudades 1575" by Biblioteca Nacional de España is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Meanwhile, in Mantua, there lived a wealthy and well-lettered young man, scion of the well-established Norzi banking family. Originating in the Umbrian town of Norcia, the family (known by various forms of the name: de Nursia, da Norcia, da Norsa, Norzi) launched many a lauded rabbi on his career.
One of them was Yedidyah Shlomo Refael ben Avraham Norzi. Like many a Talmudically-trained student before him, Norzi noticed that many verses from Tanakh quoted in the Talmuds, midrashim, or the Zohar were somewhat different from that of Torah scrolls or printed Bibles. Norzi’s burning questions were: do the differences mean anything? And how can we know that the text we have before us today (today being c. 1600 in this case) is the most accurate one?
Norzi marshaled the resources of his well-appointed life towards the goal of tracking down, documenting, and comparing all the small differences in the textual tradition of the entire Tanakh. He cites over 300 sources by name, both print and manuscript, along with many more vague references that indicate his further research. Particularly prized among them, for Norzi, were manuscripts of Iberian origins. One of these manuscripts that he consulted, as has been clearly established, is the magnificent (and highly accurate) Ms. Cod. Parm. 2668 in the Palatina Library, Parma (you can leaf through it here, and you absolutely should).
For all the trouble that he took, and for all that Norzi’s work is still a standard reference on the masoretic text and glosses, the answers to his questions are these: one, the textual differences between different citations of the Bible are small and generally meaningless; and two, a meticulously corrected text basically replicates the work of the classical Ben Asher school of Tiberian Masoretes from the 9th-10th centuries.
It’s the how of how Norzi did it that’s interesting: it shows us how amazing it is that we possess the masorah in such a robust form, and how much we depend on one another for this treasure.
Or Torah and Minchat Shay
In 1618, Lonzano’s aforementioned work on the masoretic text of the Bible, Or Torah, was printed in Mantua. Lonzano seems to have traveled there to attend to the printing of the book, and while in Mantua, was a guest in Norzi’s home. Norzi records that he saw Or Torah in Lonzano’s manuscript, before its publication:
גם שתיתי בצמא את דברי הזקן ונושא פנים החכם ר’ מנחם די לונזאנו אשר בא צדיק זה לבית מלתי לחסות בצל קורתי והראה לי הגהתו אשר עשה על החומש קודם שהביאה אל הדפוס וקרא שם הספר אור תורה…וממנו ראיתי וכן עשיתי גם אני.
“In addition I have drunk with thirst the words of the distinguished senior, the learned Menachem de Lonzano; this righteous man came to my home to shelter in the shade of my rafters and he showed me his correction which he had made to the Torah before he brought it to be printed, and called the name of the book Or Torah…and from it I saw and accordingly worked, I too.”
In fact, Norzi relied on Lonzano’s work on many technical points of grammar and for references to texts he himself did not have access to, but which were in circulation in Jerusalem, from where Lonzano hailed. Though Norzi acknowledges his debt to Or Torah in many citations, Norzi also very often fails to cite Lonzano’s work where he clearly used it.
And then, in his later draft of the statement cited above, Norzi notably removes the last bit, “from it I saw and accordingly worked, I too.” His circumspection paid off; Norzi’s book, which covered the entirety of the Tanakh (including, of course, a great deal of Norzi’s own hard work), superseded Lonzano’s. The later work was really a joint effort.
How to write a book in early modern Italy
Remarkably, we possess two autograph copies of Norzi’s work (autograph, meaning written by the author). And it’s likely we have an autograph copy of Lonzano’s Or Torah as well, which includes additions and notes that do not appear in the printed version (Cod. Parm. 2731); dated 1617, a year before Or Torah appeared in print, this well might have been the manuscript to which Norzi was privy.
Norzi’s two autographs permit us to see a record of his methodology in great detail, aided by the introduction he left us in which he describes his work. Both manuscripts consist of bound leaflets, which Norzi used in the following way: he wrote on the backs of the pages (in Hebrew, the right-hand side of the spread as pictured above), leaving the facing page (above, on the left) blank. This page was intentionally left as room for anticipated additions. In addition, Norzi left himself ample room in the margins for notes. He anticipated layers and years of work. And indeed internal evidence shows that he worked on the book over a period of at least eight years, composing its body and then adding to it over several weeks of work annually.
The first manuscript (British Library Ms. Add. 27198) consists of Norzi’s critical notes on the entirety of Tanakh. To this he made extensive corrections and additions on the facing pages, constituting a second draft. Due to the copiousness of his additions, Norzi then copied the second draft of only the section on Chumash onto a second manuscript (Bodl. Ms. Mich. 562). Norzi utilized the second manuscript in the same way as the first, initially writing on only the backs of the pages. His additions to this second draft therefore create a third draft (on Chumash).
Sometime in the 18th century, an unknown scholar had both of Norzi’s layered autograph manuscripts in front of (presumably) him. He accurately perceived the order of Norzi’s work and masterfully combined the two documents into a single work (Ms. Kaufmann A 44), which served as the basis for the first printed edition.
Norzi’s critical notes on the Masoretic Text is today known to us as מנחת ש"י (Minchat Shay, “The Gift of Shay”), an acronym given it by its first printer in honor of its author, Yedidyah Shlomo. But that was not the name he gave it: Norzi himself titled his work גודר פקץ (Goder Peretz, “Sealing a Breach”), indicating the urgency with which he undertook the project. This is explained in the introduction that Norzi wrote after he completed his work, neatly bound in as the first leaflet in one of two autograph copies. But the introductory leaflet had been separated from the manuscript, then unceremoniously bound in at a much later date. The first printer did not see Norzi’s introduction, and it was published separately, in a limited edition Pisa in 1819 and again in 1876 by Adolf Jellinek.
Sealing the breach
Today, in the era of computer-checked Torah scrolls, widespread digitization, and a global conglomeration of textual witnesses, including 10th-11th century Masoretic texts, we have in some ways obviated the need for the careful labor undertaken by Lonzano and Norzi. But the fidelity of our texts is the product of their work, and that of countless others. It speaks to their integrity, their care; it reassures us that the human ability to transmit that which is precious is stunningly reliable.
Selected sources
Last week, I asked about including footnotes/sources in the newsletter. (I’d still love to hear your thoughts!) For now, I’m going to drop in major editions and my pick of the research articles I consulted here at the end.
  • An online edition of Norzi’s Minchat Shay is available at here. (I couldn’t find information on the edition they used, but generally Al HaTorah has good texts; Sefaria and Daat have partial versions.) Lonzano’s Or Torah does not appear in modern editions; you’ll find (not great) scans of the early editions on
  • The critical edition of Norzi on the Torah is: Yedidyah Solomon Raphael Norzi, Minhat Shay on the Torah: Critical Edition, Introduction and Notes, ed. Zvi Betser and Yosef Ofer (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 2005).
  • I highly recommend this research article: Yosef Ofer, “Methods and Sources of Yedidya Shelomo Norzi in His Treatise Minhat Shay,” Textus 24 (2009): 287–312. [pdf]
On Sundays, I post a preview of the newsletter topic in a Twitter thread. You can read the thread on Norzi (Lonzano doesn’t make an appearance) below.
Dr. Tamar Marvin
Squeezing in this week's fascinating rabbi between tiyulim & beating aravot. How about a Masoretic text-centered thread ahead of Simchat Torah?

Meet Yedidyah Shlomo Norzi, who, in the early 1600s, became concerned about inaccuracies in printed Bibles. He decided to do something.
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Dr. Tamar Marvin
Dr. Tamar Marvin @tamar_marvin

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